to current LGBTQ SPU students

For LGBTQ students, being hurt and disappointed by the actions and inactions of the Board of Trustees is, regrettably, an SPU tradition.

I am an SPU graduate of 2015. The Board’s recent refusal to remove the Statement on Human Sexuality reactivates the shame and trauma of my own decade of closeted self-hatred, which a wonderful SPU counselor and many wonderful SPU professors helped transfigure into joy. When I came out publicly in a blog post my sophomore year (yes girl, a blog post), I was astonished by the support I was shown by my peers and professors and even by members of the administration. The tragedy is that so many members of SPU’s community have been ready to live into another world. But institutional change is slow, and the white cisheteropatriarchy dies hard, so the Board continues to tell SPU’s queer students and faculty that they belong not to SPU but to the outside culture that is to be engaged and the outside world that is to be changed—keeping the queers out, a missiology of conversion therapy.

For LGBTQ Christians and LGBTQ people who were Christians but have become too weary of Christianity’s phobias to continue to believe and practice, this is part of our inheritance. For me, and maybe for you, the Board’s decision compounds the pain of other recent decisions by Methodists and the denomination of my own upbringing, the Evangelical Covenant (Quest Church’s denomination), to refuse queer people full participation in the life of their communities.

Maybe some of you have queer mentors—I did not at SPU, precisely because the Statement on Human Sexuality is designed to keep us from learning about ourselves. So for those who don’t, here are some words on what else belongs to you in our queer inheritance.

If you’ve experienced acceptance at SPU that is dissonant with the Board’s decision, cherish that acceptance. The news that 75% of the faculty is supportive of eliminating the statement is good news. And I know people in the administration who are also fighting the decision. It doesn’t necessarily translate into being/feeling supported on an individual level, but I hope you’ve found your people. Trust that what love you’ve been shown by faculty and fellow students is real. Take what you can where you can to make your life livable. Finding love and pleasure despite and even within systems built to stomp out queerness is part of our inheritance. There are pockets of joy and resistance in even the most unlikely places. Revel in them, for they are a grace.

SPU separates itself from the culture and world it names in its mission statement, particularly in moments like this. There is beauty and goodness in that “culture” and “world,” just as there is danger, especially for LGBTQ people and people of color. If SPU is not the place where you find your queer kindred and the freedom to live your life, go fearlessly into that world. An awkward secret for Christians is that whenever we draw boundaries between ourselves and others, God is on the other side. God will meet you there in the people and bodies you’ve been told are unclean, including your own. Do not be naïve, but do not be afraid.

You may now feel as if the world is closing in around you. I hope not, but if so, let me remind you: it may not be at SPU, but there is a future for you. It will be difficult at times, but there is a future waiting to be inhabited by your unrepeatable presence. It’s another awkward truth for Christians: we spin many lies for each other, and we build structures of containment to control each other. We make it difficult for others to live, and you may feel that acutely now, because the “traditional sexual ethic” and SPU’s Statement that upholds it are two such structures. This language has been so abused, but there is a new life beyond this that awaits you, and it doesn’t resemble what you’ve been told to expect, but there is—there is freedom from the constraints that press down upon you even now, and that liberation is of God. The awkward truth for the Board is that the gospel means freedom from their attempts to stifle your life and joy. Your difference and the unnecessary pain you are being made to feel because of it—take them as an invitation into this new life, which may be found in resistance, there, at SPU, and in spaces beyond the Board’s imagination and reach. Embrace this new life now if you can.

I am currently a doctoral student in a theology department. I study theology, gay literature, and queer theory. It has been a hope of mine, one idea for my own future, that I might be able to return to SPU someday to teach these and other things to LGBTQ students (and cishets with ears to hear) in the context of the classroom. I’m holding out hope that the fearless work of ASSP, alumni, much of the faculty, and those within the administration trying to change policy will be brought to fruition. Until then, I hope that this letter might give you and any LGBTQ students to come a sense of the queer countertradition that is available to you, which may be found both within and beyond the Christian communities you know. There is more to life, more to God, more to you, than what the Board can offer or withhold—there is more joy, and they, idolizing their own experience and clinging to their sameness, will never know it. This excess of queer life is a grace, and it is your inheritance. Do not be afraid of it.

[this letter is also up alongside others at SPU’s fantastic student paper, The Falcon, available here]

Humble Love, Good Art

After reading “Where Are All the Good Stories about Marriage?” by W. David O. Taylor, over at Christianity Today, some thoughts have bubbled up. I should be working on my thesis, but…

In the article, Taylor addresses—broadly—the role of Christians as culture-makers in a non-Christian society, and—specifically—the way in which recent movies and television series have portrayed gay relationships and not so many straight Christian marriages:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I share Taylor’s concern that Christians have not done enough to use our “artistic imagination”. It seems to me that this problem is a fairly recent one. For centuries, Christians (of various tongues and tribes) have been the creators of luminous art that has expanded and created new artistic forms, inspired generations of people, and glorified God. From catacomb frescoes by early Roman Christians to the icons of the Eastern churches to the Lindisfarne Gospels to Gregorian chant to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Palestrina’s polyphonic masses to the linguistic style of the King James Bible to Christopher Wren to Bach to Dostoevsky to the spirituals of African American slaves to Henry Owassa Tanner (look him up!). Any such list is doomed from the start because Christians have made so much damn good art and it is worth pointing out that a lot of it was created for the purpose of worship—for the Christian community to rehearse its history and tell its stories in new ways, often within the context of a mass or other liturgy.

It is not necessary that art made by Christians be used in such settings. Nor is it necessary that art made by Christians include Bible stories or obviously recognizable Christian images and themes. I don’t watch TV and I don’t watch enough films to say anything very interesting about them, but I do read books. Borrowing the language of Gregory Wolfe, a lot of Christians who write about faith today do not necessarily do it in shouts (think Flannery O’Connor), but in whispers, like Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop—one of the best writing programs in the world. Nearly all of her publications, fiction and non-fiction, have won prestigious awards, including a book about a midwestern preacher and his wife (note: it’s a straight Christian marriage). The book is called Gilead and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book, Lila (a prequel to Gilead) is about how the two met and how Lila came to Christ. Tomorrow Robinson is talking about Lila at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, a university comprised by people of many faiths and ideologies, not a majority of whom are Christian.

I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals and abbeys over the course of my two terms abroad at Oxford, representing different time periods (from the 12th century to the 20th), different styles, and different locations. However, they all have one thing in common: they are crammed with tourists. I occasionally find this annoying (I’ve seen people take ducklip selfies whilst irreverently standing astride centuries-old graves of Irish nuns), but it is a good thing that these places of worship are still, in various ways, drawing in crowds of curious onlookers.

When Christians make really good art—even if it does unapologetically pertain to topics of faith—others want to see it, read it, watch it, study it, learn from it, be inspired by it, and potentially changed by it.

– – – – –

For my SPU thesis, as well as the shorter one I’m currently working on for my study abroad, I have been reading a lot literature that pertains to Christianity and homosexuality—fiction and theory. If you follow my blog at all (thanks by the way!) you will know that this is a personal topic for me.

Questions of identity are difficult. I’ve spent my whole life living hours away from extended family. When I was ten my family moved from New Hampshire to Michigan. My heritage is a mix of German, Welsh, Swedish, Slavic, Scottish, Swiss, and English, none of which I am extremely in touch with (stay tuned for a post about Sweden). In her essay “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,” Jeanette Winterson writes, “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” Land, clan, and nationality are all powerful contexts in which we hear stories about ourselves that tell us who we are. They are lenses through which we see the world, and my lenses are all fogged up.

Because I am fairly distant from so many of these things that root a person into a larger narrative of life on earth, my faith has become important to me in a new way: it is a narrative through which I can understand myself as being part of something larger than just myself—something ancient, something true—Christ’s Body, the Church. It roots me in a story that begins with the creation of everything and ends with the restoration of everything. In between those points, there are some difficulties.

After slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am attracted to men, I also began coming to terms with the fact that a large part of Western cultural history does not pertain to me. Listen to the radio, watch television or a movie, or, do what I mainly do, and read a book—scan the canons of great literature, and while doing these things, imagine that you are a Christian attracted to the same sex. There aren’t songs for you—certainly not love songs. You have no literary history. There aren’t shows on television for you. You don’t have movies. Now reread the passage from Dr. Taylor’s article:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I have a practical suggestion for those with theologically conservative views on marriage: making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage for the sake of making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage not only sidesteps the question of what gay Christians in your community can do, but in the current political climate in which the dominant voices on both sides are loud and angry, it will be taken and responded to (or, more likely, ignored) as just another political act.

Later in his essay Dr. Taylor writes:

As always, we should seek every opportunity to lay down our lives to serve our neighbors, gay or straight or otherwise, offering them the hospitality of Christ in witness to the fatherly love of God. Nothing good will come of holding onto stereotypes. Our neighbors are not our enemies. They are men and women made in the image of God and beloved by him. To them we owe the same kind of humble love that Christ has shown us.

This should change your art. If you want to make a difference with your artistic imagination as a Christian with theologically conservative views on marriage, make movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage learning what it means to love their gay sister, their transexual son, or their intersex neighbor—learning that loving them often has little to do with anyone’s ideas about marriage and has all to do with presence. And if you are trying to rid yourself of stereotypes, try portraying the LGBTQ people as coworkers, faithful Christians, devoted parents, not just condescending portrayals of the prodigal son.

If you want to learn how to seek every opportunity to lay down your life for your gay neighbor, start by making a space for us in your artistic imagination. Most of us know what straight Christian marriages look like. I was so blessed in the parents God gave me, but many LGBT people have been hurt, beaten, and disowned by their straight Christian parents with theologically conservative views on marriage. Try to imagine what you could do to make people with these experiences want to watch your movie, to listen to you. Creating a movie about a wonderful Christian marriage without any LGBT characters in it will tell them something about how you want the world to be.

Someone once said to me about volunteering at my old church’s Vacation Bible School while being gay that “it is clear what will happen to those who cause little ones to stumble,” referencing Matthew 9:42 (“but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea,” ESV). The implication was clear to me. While I disagree with how the verse was used in that instance, it is true that we have great responsibility in how we interact with people, especially about things pertaining to faith. Let it be through humble love, and if there is art involved, good art.